Urban Wire How single mothers cope without work or cash assistance
Heather Sandstrom
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How do single mothers get by when they can’t find work but aren’t receiving cash assistance?

The Urban Institute and the University of Michigan recently interviewed 51 of these disconnected mothers to understand the reasons for their disconnection and the strategies they use to make ends meet.  The women we interviewed found a variety of ways to cope without stable income.

  • Nutritional assistance programs covered most or all food expenses, freeing up cash to pay for other necessities. As needed, several women turned to food pantries and churches for donated goods to supplement their meals.
  • Almost half of the women we interviewed in Michigan lived in subsidized housing. Others doubled up with relatives to afford rent.
  • Many of the women worked side jobs—such as informally caring for children, cleaning homes, and cutting and styling hair—to earn a little cash.
  • Partners and children’s fathers provided informal and formal support. While cohabitation was common in Los Angeles, it was rare among the Michigan group, half of whom were receiving significant financial help from the non-residential fathers of their children.
  • Family and friends offered various levels of support, from helping with rent and bills to providing food, items for children, and child care.
  • Families pooled their resources to get by. In some cases, children in the household received disability payments. In one case, an older son maximized college loans to help pay the family’s rent.

Even with help from public programs and social support networks, material hardship was quite common. Housing stability was the most challenging. Some families faced bouts of food insecurity during months when spending was tight and their nutrition benefits were not sufficient. Transportation and child care costs were a large burden, which in many cases kept mothers from seeking employment outside the home. The mothers we interviewed also reported high levels of stress and in some cases depression as they managed their households.

Looking ahead, it’s necessary to consider the circumstances of disconnected families.

Photo: A mother and her son pick out food from a New York City food bank. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)


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Research Areas Disability equity policy
Tags Subsidized employment Wages and nonwage compensation Disabilities and employment Workers in low-wage jobs Labor force Unemployment and unemployment insurance